Bringing Some Gold to the Civil War: Let’s Talk About California

 The 71st Pennsylania Monument at Gettysburg

The 71st Pennsylania Monument at Gettysburg

If you go to the angle at Gettysburg, where the infamous Confederate charge was broken, you will see…..monuments, what else?  As with every area of that famous battlefield, there are numerous monuments to various leaders and regiments, each with their own story to tell.  You can see the cannons where Lo Armistead and Alonzo Cushing fell; General Meade sits on his horse, forever surveying the open ground between him and where General Robert E. Lee is also immortalized in bronze; the young zouave of the 72nd Pennsylvania clubs his imaginary foe for eternity; and not far away, a Native American stands before his tepee (imagery of Tammany Hall politics), always begging the visitor response: “I didn’t know the Indians were here!”  Among this vast collection of monuments stands another which often makes visitors stop and think.  At the corner of the angle stands a large, but simplistic stone monument.  Rising four stone layers from the pedestal, topped with pointed stone pieces, and supporting panels of writing on each side, this monument is not as flashy as many that surround it.  It is what is written at the very top of the side facing away from the Confederate line that catches the attention of those who stop and take a look.  Above the Second Corps trefoil is written “California Regiment.”  Californian soldiers were at Gettysburg? Really? Well…….no. 

At the outbreak of the Civil War, California was America’s west-most state.  Acquired with a large chunk of land by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) which ended the Mexican-American War, California quickly became a state when the discovery of gold caused a population boom.  On September 9, 1850 California was officially admitted to the United States as a free state as part of the Compromise of 1850.  Despite being separated from the rest of the states by a large expanse of territorial land (Texas was the next closest state), California did not remain isolated from the conflicts which led to civil war.  Although admitted as a free state, California faced its own secession crisis as the conflict heated up in the east.  Pro-Union factions prevailed and the United States flag remained above the Golden State.  Even though California was far from the main areas of action, they wanted to become involved; thus the “California Regiment” at Gettysburg.  Because it was such a great distance California could not send regiments to the eastern theatres (although individuals traveled east to join both the Union and Confederate armies) so Californian Senator James McDougall offered the idea that he would be willing to raise the money and furnish the arms to a “Californian” regiment if his friend in Washington, Oregon Senator Edward D. Baker (who would command these troops), would be willing to find men from the eastern states to fill it.  Baker contacted Isaac Jones Wistar in Philadelphia for help recruiting the troops.  Originally, Baker had wanted to recruit the men from New York, but Wistar thought he would have better luck in Philadelphia, and the California Brigade of four regiments was born.  After spending about two months constructing defenses and skirmishing around Washington, they saw action at Ball’s Bluff.  Here Baker was killed and all ties to California were cut; Pennsylvania reclaimed their troops and relabeled them the Sixty-Ninth, Seventy-first, Seventy-second, and One Hundred and Sixth Pennsylvania, the “Philadelphia Brigade.”  These regiments remained in service in the eastern theatre until after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  At the end of the war when these four regiments placed monuments at Gettysburg where they had stopped the Confederate attack on July 3, 1863, only the 71st Pennsylvania chose to honor its “Californian” roots.  Of course “real” Californian regiments did exist.  Californians who did not travel east to fight in the armies there joined units (two cavalry regiments, eight infantry regiments, and two smaller units) that fought in the West, primarily in the territories.  Some fought Confederates and Southern sympathizers, some fought Native Americans, some fought simply to keep the mail lines open.  These men occupied a vast area and insured that the Far West remained federal territory and that gold would continue to move east to assist in the war effort, important tasks even if they do not figure largely in the memory of the Civil War.

 Fort Point under the golden gate bridge

Fort Point under the golden gate bridge

California indeed felt the conflict of the Civil War, something I discovered while visiting San Francisco a few years ago.  My parents and I were in town for my cousin’s wedding, and we were seeing the sites, including the most iconic of all: The Golden Gate Bridge.  Of course Golden Gate National Recreation Area contains more than just the famous bridge, as we were to discover.  It chronicles many aspects of California’s diverse history including historic Fort Point which sits literally under the span of the bridge.  I, of course, had to see it, since my interest lies with military history, so I dragged my parents to yet another military site.  On our way we passed a sign that said “Reenactment Today” which made me even more curious, but I was not expecting what I saw when we entered the fort: Union Civil War reeanactors.  That’s right, Civil War reeanactors under the Golden Gate Bridge.  And amazingly they were not out of place there.  Originally constructed due to the Gold Rush, Fort Point was constructed by the US Army Engineers between 1853 and 1861.  It was placed at the mouth of the Golden Gate, the entrance to San Francisco Bay, to protect the Bay and the area’s golden resources. Initial construction was slow and by 1860 the fort was far from completed; with war looming in the east, however, construction continued in 1861 and the first fifty-five guns were finally mounted.  Colonel Albert Sidney Johnson oversaw preparations to defend the bay against possible attack and ordered the first garrison to Fort Point before resigning his commission and joining the Confederate Army (where he would be killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862).  The fort never came under attack during the war, but it was ready to defend the Union presence on that coast. 

California is not usually first in people’s minds when it comes to the Civil War, and frankly it probably never will be.  The focus has always been on the eastern half of the United States where the war was more fiercely contested on the battlefield, in government, and in millions of homes.  But the Civil War was a national experience, encompassing every state and territory that called itself American.  I personally discovered this when I encountered Californian involvement at two American icons roughly three thousand miles apart: Gettysburg and the Golden Gate Bridge.  So, let’s talk about California along with Virginia, New York, and North Carolina.  Let’s talk about the western territories along with Pennsylvania, Texas, and Illinois.  Let’s keep broadening the discussion of our country’s largest conflict, you never know when you will strike gold.

Further Reading:

Martini, John Arturo.  Fort Point:Sentry at the Golden Gate.  Golden Gate National Park Association, 1992.

Richards, Leonard. The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War. Vintage, 2008.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.